Four Coast Guard marksmen take part in DHS firearms competition > United States Coast Guard > My Coast Guard News

Four Coast Guard marksmen take part in DHS firearms competition > United States Coast Guard > My Coast Guard News

Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel Alati jumped out of the white SUV, pulled his rifle from the trunk, and hurried to the firing line. It was dark, and the flashing red and blue lights made it difficult to see, but he aimed to take down the steel posts first, then emptied three rounds into a target 50 yards away. Sprinting to the next barricade, he spotted something moving 25 yards ahead and shot at it until he’d nearly emptied his rifle. Then he drew his pistol and ran to a third barrier where he engaged the steel knockdowns before shooting at three separate targets–moving closer as he fired since time was running out.

He finished within the 90 second time limit, but when he looked at his target results, he shook his head. “That wasn’t easy.”

Nor was it a typical day on the job. Alati, a marine enforcement specialist, was part of a four-person Coast Guard marksmanship team from the Maritime Safety and Security Team (MSST) that had traveled from Houston to compete in the first annual DHS Invitational. The firearms competition, which pits eight DHS law enforcement agencies against each other, was held June 12 to June 13 at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Cheltenham, Maryland.

The two-day event featured three competition courses and one data-collection course at the indoor facility. In addition to the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), US Secret Service (USSS), Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Federal Protective Service (FPS ), and FLETC fielded teams. The challenge was designed to provide training through competition and boost camaraderie—both within the individual teams and across the DHS. It was also being used to gather data about weapons and ammunition.

Oh, and everyone who entered obviously wanted to win and have their service carry away the Secretary’s Cup for bragging rights.

But to Competitive Marksmanship Coordinator Lt. Joe Diener—who sat on the DHS working group for the event and invited the MSST to take part in the competition—there were more important considerations.

“We could have had our MSRT (Maritime Security Response Team) come here and compete as ringers,” he said. “But the goal is to get some experience for these operators. It’s less important to get a trophy than to see where the weaknesses are in our fleet wide competency and training and what our officers need to do to improve.”

Spoiler alert: The Coast Guard team didn’t win. That honor went to four “ringers” from the TSA who beat out the USSS by 0.08. (Keep that in mind the next time you’re at the airport.) The individual winner was Paul Kusper with the FLETC.

How it played out

But the benefits for the Coast Guard team were apparent from the first day. The competition opened with the DHS standard qualification courses where everyone got off to a good start. Petty Officer 2nd Class Aiden Cook, whose father was part of a Marine Corps Special Reaction Team (SRT), hit 50 out of 50 with his pistol. His teammates, Petty Officer 2nd Class Donald Sealy and Petty Officer 3rd Class Aaron Hernandez, each only missed 1. Meanwhile, Alati, a former MSRT member, earned the highest score in the rifle qualifications, missing just 3.

By lunchtime, the Coast Guard was running neck and neck with the other branches. Munching on seafood, teammates joked with each other and compared scores and techniques. Everyone said they liked using the Glock G19 9mm, which became the Coast Guard’s personal defense weapon last year and was making its competitive debut. They also agreed the competition was a significant improvement over the twice-a-year shooting drills they typically went through to earn their qualifications.

“We train, but it’s nothing like this,” said Hernandez, a former collegiate wrestler, and at 22, the youngest competitor at the event. “It’s nerve-wracking.”

The next stage—the accuracy session—was more challenging. Competitors had to shoot at targets from 50 yards with a pistol and 100 yards with a rifle. On the rifle course, the target was so far away it looked like a Tic Tac. The MSST shooters were already at a disadvantage—to the extent they use firearms on the job, they typically fire at less than 25 yards. And unlike their competitors, the Coast Guard does not allow optical sights on pistols which can be a significant advantage to shooters.

But even if the Coast Guard doesn’t shoot a lot from distance, consistency is the key to being a good shot, Diener said. Hernandez fared best here, making about 60 percent of his shots. But the whole team agreed they had to improve. Particularly, because all four said they wanted careers at an MSRT, other Deployable Specialized Forces (DSF) units, or in law enforcement.

“The DSF is basically what kept me in the Coast Guard,” said Sealy, whose brother and sister-in-law are also in the service. “This competition has been great to learn my weak spots and some training tools.”

Cook agreed. “This competition is better than training because it really makes you focus on the mechanics,” he said. “You have to critique yourself and know what you have to work on.”

The final day was the tactical course, which, as Alati found, was no easy feat. Competitors had 90 seconds to hit multiple targets from different positions on a dimly lit course with switching between rifle and pistol. The Coast Guard team strategized early, both among themselves and with members of other DHS teams once everyone saw the course. “That’s been one of the great things about being here,” Alati said. “To get to meet so many people and learn from them.”

His teammates said it had been great to learn from Alati. As a handler for the Canine Explosive Detection Team, Alati spends most of his time in Houston with working dog Simba. “Being here has really strengthened our relationship with ME1 Alati,” Cook said. “We don’t get to see him much but with him coming from MSRT, we really look up to him and he shares as much as he can with us about his experience. I think learning from us has also been great for Aaron (Hernandez). It’s like big brother, little brother.”

Hernandez must have gotten something from experience since he finished 15th on the tactical course, the highest on the team. “These guys all have way more time doing this than I do so they are like big brothers,” he said. “They’ve given me great dating and relationship advice, too.”

The DHS plans to make this competition an annual event. Diener hopes to bring a Coast Guard team back next year as well as field teams to more competitions like this one. The Coast Guard’s Competitive Marksmanship Program views competition as an opportunity for training, he said, adding: “Having our members be able to shoot, compete, learn, and then bring their successes and failures back to their units and the fleet is one of the best ways to improve skills and identify training gaps.”